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Monday 13 March 2006

Night Watch

a review by Claude Lalumière

English-language version of Nochnoi Dozor

Directed by Timur Bekmambetov

Written by Timur Bekmambetov and Laeta Kalogridis, based on the novel by Sergei Lukyanenko

Starring Konstantin Khabensky, Vladimir Menshov, Victor Verzhbitsky, and Dima Martynov

Night Watch is the first film in a trilogy based on Russian author Sergei Lukyanenko's Nochnoj Dozor series. For the English-language release of this Russian fantasy thriller, the opening-sequence voice-over is dubbed into Russian-accented English (which perfectly sets the mood) while throughout the film the dialogue itself is subtitled.

The subtitles are worth mentioning, because the filmmakers use them to enhance the visual stamp of the film. Instead of just blandly sitting centered at the bottom of the screen in nondescript font, the subtitles have the same kind of visual impact and storytelling quality as comics lettering. This is not to say that they are garish -- far from it. They reflect the somber mood of the story, subtly changing position so as to always make it clear who is talking, while occasionally marking more spectacular or startling moments with apt visual effects. They fit within the image on the screen, rather than sitting on top like an intrusion. As a result, the screen takes on, to a degree, the characteristics of a comics panel. It's a pertinent esthetic choice, as the story unfolds against the backdrop of a secret war between forces of light and darkness, and such grand, operatic tropes have long been the purview of superhero comics.

The story is close kin to postmodern superhero stories, such as those of Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Warren Ellis, and Joss Whedon (there's even a nod to Whedon's TV sensation Buffy the Vampire Slayer), in which the protagonists are often at odds with the customary worldview of the genre in which they find themselves.

Although the characters in Night Watch, supernatural beings called "Others", are explicitly slotted either in the good/light or evil/darkness camp -- in fact, the social context requires them to choose one side or the other -- there is more than one suggestion that reality is in fact more complex and shaded than this facile and (in the world of the film) traditional dichotomy. Friendships exist between agents of opposing camps. The film questions motivations, assumptions, perceptions, and beliefs with actions and situations that fail to conform to the dominant dichotomic worldview of the Others' society.

The opening sequence, shot in an epic fantasy style, sets up the premise. In a mythological dreamtime past, two warring armies of Others, light and darkness, equally matched, are caught in a deadlock. Their leaders call a truce. The result: the Night Watch, composed of "good" Others, polices their dark counterparts, while the Day Watch, composed of "evil" Others, does the some for Others in the light camp. Thus the truce is maintained. These Others live among us, in the guise of ordinary humans.

The film shifts to the (more or less) real-world 1990s, and the film acquires a gritty, urban style, where, in Moscow, a new Other is discovered and joins the side of light. This is Anton Gorodetsky, who is the film's protagonist. Jump to twelve years later, and he now works as a field operative for the Night Watch. We see Anton take on a case: a vampire is illegally calling a human to slaughter. That the present-day action begins to unfold on this case is not random: all is not as it first appears. That the first real-time scene is Anton's awakening as an Other is also more than it seems. Every detail matters.

In the meantime, ancient prophecies are unfolding, threatening the truce and the status quo.

The premise of two opposing camps of supernatural beings living in the shadows of the real world recalls the Underworld series of films. Indeed, the two series do possess superficial similarities. However, while Underworld favors long, endless gunplay in lieu of plot or story, subtle character moments abound in Night Watch; while Underworld falls victim to slick Hollywood glamour, Night Watch's more realistic cast is refreshingly free of such airbrushed artifice.

I particularly enjoyed those scenes, such as the rooftop battle at the end of the film, in which the point of view keeps shifting from how the protagonist, an aspect of whom operates in mythological dreamtime, perceives his actions to how the conflict would look to non-supernatural eyes. There's a wry pathos at work in those sequences, perhaps provoking a whole new level of questioning as to what's really going on.

The film is not without its problems. Foremost is chronology; time doesn't always seem to elapse at the same pace for different characters or subplots, which leads to a few scenes feeling forced by the plot rather than arising from the story.

Overall, though, the film captivates. The visual and aural esthetics have clearly been carefully planned and thought out so as to be full-fledged storytelling elements. The fantasy ideas are worked out with rigor; the cast is engaging; the characters are intriguing; and, chronology problems aside, the plotting is clever and thematically tight.

Although there are red herrings aplenty, no scene is gratuitous. Details, perhaps even all of them, pay off. And the conclusion, which goes a long way towards explaining some of the film's most puzzling points, is a great moment on which to end this first installment, while tantalizingly setting up the new status quo and the conflicts for the next.

© 2006 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.